JERUSALEM — When Arnold Schwarzenegger came under fire during the California recall campaign for past remarks praising Adolf Hitler’s speaking skills and former Austrian president Kurt Waldheim, his staunchest defender was the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
Schwarzenegger appeared to return the favor last week when he announced the formation of his 68-member transition team. The governor-elect tapped Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Los Angeles-based center, making him the team’s only rabbi.
“Is it nice to be asked? Yes. It’s a nice gesture,” Cooper said while in Israel for the Sukkot holiday. “But that for me is not the issue; it’s a reflection of the 19-year relationship that we have.”
The Wiesenthal Center, which works to promote tolerance and Holocaust awareness, has long cultivated close ties to California’s governors, both Democrats and Republicans. Its Museum of Tolerance has received millions of dollars in state funding.
In addition to being politically well connected, the Wiesenthal Center has extensive ties to the entertainment industry. And Schwarzenegger is Hollywood’s largest contributor to the Wiesenthal Center, Cooper said. He added that when then Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited the center’s Museum of Tolerance, Schwarzenegger accompanied him, along with actor Jon Voight.
Cooper said he accepted the appointment to the transition team because of “the assurance that this is not a partisan group.”
“I’m there because the Wiesenthal Center and the Museum of Tolerance touch on a lot of issues in California: social issues, education, police training and intergroup relations,” he said.
There were three issues of specifically Jewish concern that he said he would be bringing up with the transition team: retaining a Jewish liaison to the governor, continuing the commitments made by the two previous governors — Pete Wilson and Gray Davis — to California-Israel trade and continuing the current governor’s advisory group on Nazi-era insurance issues.
Beyond that, Cooper said he and the center’s dean, Rabbi Marvin Hier, would be working to bring Schwarzenegger to Israel next year. He has been to Israel twice before: in July 1995 to open a Planet Hollywood restaurant in Tel Aviv and in 1978, when he was a lesser-known star of the body-building world.
“We’ll do our best from our end to see to it that as soon as he can come up for air, sometime in the first half of 2004, we’ll try to get him over here,” he said.
Cooper said that he met with Prime Minister Sharon this week and told him of the plans to bring Schwarzenegger to Israel. “He indicated he will probably write him a letter of congratulations and looks forward to talking with him,” Cooper said.
During the recall campaign, however, the Austrian-born movie star came under fire for in the past having spoken admiringly of Hitler’s oratorical skills and for at his wedding to Maria Shriver toasting Waldheim. A former United Nations secretary general, Waldheim was facing accusations that he had covered up his Nazi past and wartime service with a German army unit that had committed atrocities.
Wiesenthal Center officials rushed to Schwarzenegger’s defense, insisting that he does not hold antisemitic views and vouching for him as a friend of the Jewish community.
Schwarzenegger, whose father had been a Nazi, had gone to the Wiesenthal Center years ago to ask that they investigate his father’s past. He has publicly denounced his father’s Nazi affiliation, and during the campaign he said he regretted his remarks about Waldheim.
“The person who we have come to know over 19 years is someone who is publicly and unabashedly sympathetic to Jewish concerns,” Cooper said.
He insisted, however, that he is “not an apologist for Arnold Schwarzenegger.”
“He’s done some stupid and inappropriate things, and he has since acknowledged that it was an improper thing to do,” he said. “People have to judge Arnold Schwarzenegger like everyone else, on his deeds. Not everything that he’s going to do is appropriate, and when that happens, he deserves to be called on it.”